Toronto 2011: With ‘Jeff,’ Helms and Segel in a new light


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Indie-film darlings Mark and Jay Duplass want moviegoers to know something about the stars of their new studio picture, ‘Jeff, Who Lives at Home.’

‘People expecting that they’ll be seeing the Ed Helms of ‘Hangover 2’ or Jason Segel in a mainstream comedy aren’t going to get that,’ Mark Duplass told 24 Frames. ‘Audiences will see these actors do things they’ve never done before.’


Indeed, within the first five minutes of the dramatic comedy, Helms is shown running roughshod over his meek wife (Judy Greer)--a reversal from the defanged neb the actor has played in many of his television and feature roles such as ‘Cedar Rapids,’ ‘The Office’ and the ‘Hangover’ franchise.

Segel at first seems like he’s in a more familiar Apatowian mode as a slacker stoner with his own sense of moral rightness. But his character, too, is soon given a more dramatic spin.

Six years ago, the Duplass Bros. burst on the low-budget indie scene with the crowd-pleasing road movie ‘The Puffy Chair.’ Last year they made a leap to the speciaized film world, teaming with Fox Searchlight on the Marisa Tomei-John C. Reilly relationship black comedy ‘Cyrus.’

This film sees them taking the next step, making a movie with Paramount, producer Jason Reitman, Oscar winner Susan Sarandon and au courant stars Segel and Helms.

At a world premiere Wednesday night at the Toronto Film Festival, the duo took the wraps off ‘Jeff,’ at least a full four months before the movie hits theaters. (The studio has not dated the picture, but the Duplass’ say it will probably come out in early 2012.)

Set in their home state of Louisiana, the movie begins as the titular Jeff (Segel), a 30-year-old layabout living in his mother’s basement, receives what he thinks is a sign from the universe (this right after a funny opening monologue about the movie ‘Signs’). The cosmic indication -- or is it just stoner-perceived coincidence? -- prompts Jeff to start doing strange things, or at least stranger things, like running around the strip malls of Baton Rouge stealthily pursuing strangers and delivery trucks whom he believes are also sending him signs. Each new foray seems to lead him into a new pickle.


In the meantime, Jeff’s mother (Sarandon) is getting messages of her own at work, from a secret admirer, while Jeff’s toolish and dislikable brother Pat (a goateed Helms) begins running around the city following, by himself as well as with Jeff, Pat’s wife, whom he believes is having an affair.

‘It’s a more densely plotted movie than we’ve ever done, and it’s probably the most dramatic,’ said Mark Duplass, who also acts and stars in the festival breakout ‘Your Sister’s Sister.’

‘But there are still squirm bombs,’ added Jay Duplass, referring to the brothers’ penchant for milking comedy out of characters’ uncomfortable situations.

The Duplass’ had the idea for ‘Jeff’ years ago, but the film, with its street chases and other more lavish shots, couldn’t be made on the shoestring budgets they were working with early in their careers. So they waited until they had the standing to get it financed. (At the post-screening Q&A, Mark Duplass, who shares writing and directing credits with his brother on the film, thanked Paramount and others who’ve ‘let us make weird movies.’)

Perhaps the most personal element of the film for the New Orleans natives is that it concerns two male thirtysomething brothers, which might prompt some filmgoers to see a parallel between art and life.

Asked about the connection, Mark Duplass said, ‘People always ask how we work so closely and creatively without destroying each other. And this is the opposite: These are two brothers who are estranged and don’t know how to talk to each other but because of the events of one day need to learn how to try.’

If you want to show that kind of complicated relationship, it helps to land two of the more respected comedy actors out there. When queried about how they pulled off a feat that would have been difficult to imagine earlier in their careers, the brothers put it in symbiotic terms. ‘We get movie stars,’ Mark Duplass said at the Q&A, ‘and they get to do something different.’


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-- Steven Zeitchik